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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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County Looks At Abolishing Position of Elected Coroner

Marinette County is once again looking at the possibility of abolishing the elected county coroner's position in favor of hiring a medical examiner, or contracting with another county for medical examiner services.

At the suggestion of County Administrator John LeFebvre the issue came up for discussion at meetings of the Personnel Committee on Thursday, Feb. 8 and the Law Enforcement Committee on Monday, Feb. 12, and is scheduled for discussion by the full County Board when it meets on Tuesday, Feb. 27.

Proposal to go to a hired medical examiner in place of the elected coroner post was proposed by previous County Administrator Ellen Sorensen in 2013/2014. At that time it was considered by several committees and the board but the decision was to stay with the elected coroner position.

The half-time elected position of County Coroner, held for many years by George Smith of Wausaukee, comes up for election for a four term in November of this year, as do the positions of Sheriff, held by Jerry Sauve and Clerk of Courts, held by Sheila Dudka.

Salaries for those positions for the terms starting in 2019 must be set before the first day for candidates to circulate nomination papers for those offices, which is April 15. LeFebvre had brought raise proposals to the Personnel Committee, which would have paid the clerk of courts $62,200, sheriff $92,000, and half time coroner $31,000.

Personnel Committee action changed the recommended pay to $90,000 for sheriff (up from $85,000); $63,000 for clerk of courts (up from $60,589) and keep the coroner at the current $30,504. The motion, which will be going to the full County Board on Feb. 27, provides 2 percent raises for all three positions in 2020, 1.2 percent in 2021, and 2 percent again in 2022.

At the Law Enforcement Committee meeting, LeFebvre explained he came to them with the proposal to change from coroner to medical examiner because they have jurisdiction over the position. He said the issue between elected coroner and appointed or contracted medical examiner had come to his attention because of several articles printed recently in the Wisconsin Counties Association magazine.

He said he had gone first to the Personnel Committee with the pay raise proposals because that issue must be settled before March 1. Decision of that committee was to revisit the issue after the full County Board discussion and after information they requested has been obtained.

To a question from Supervisor Paul Gustafson, LeFebvre said counties have three options - elected coroner, hired medical examiner or contracting with another county. Oconto and Door counties both contract with Brown County for medical examiner services. He said with a hired medical examiner or contracted service, counties can set minimum educational requirements, and with an elected coroner the cannot. However, the elected coroner can and does send a deceased out for autopsy, or call in a certified medical examiner when needed.

"We need someone nearby," Supervisor Mike Behnke declared. He said there is already opportunity for coroners or deputy medical examiners to get training and be certified. Behnke noted that for many years Smith paid deputy coroners out of his own salary when he had to call them in.

Asked about relative costs of the elected coroner or hired examiner, LeFebvre said going the medical examiner route would be more expensive. Currently the budget includes $120,000 for the coroner's office, which is offset by $40,000 in revenue. Oconto County pays $10,000 a month, $120,000 a year, for its contract with Brown County, and Brown County keeps the revenue as well.

Supervisor Cheryl Wruk asked LeFebvre to have a spreadsheet for cost differences prepared before the County Board meeting.

Supervisor Ken Keller, who chairs the Law Enforcement Committee, said he is in favor of bringing the discussion to the full County Board. He noted there is a definite shortage of forensic pathologists in Wisconsin.

Gustafson said they definitely need deputy coroners or medical examiners available nearby,"We don't want deputies or bereaved families standing around waiting for hours for someone to arrive. He noted the coroner is in charge of the body, and asked how that works with a medical examiner.

Sheriff Sauve said that is an important part of the coroner's responsibilities, and of a medical examiner as well. "They work with us," he said. If there is need for an autopsy, they order it. He said Smith, and Coroner Ken Mattison, who preceded him, worked well with families and funeral directors.

"We have been well served by these men," Sauve said, referring to Smith and Mattison, "They both did an excellent job! Smith has been coroner since 1987, and Mattison held the position for many years before him.

Sauve said a trained forensic pathologist will cost far more than a half time coroner with no benefits. Costs of the coroner's office can vary greatly because the coroner and/or medical examiner order autopsies when needed, and autopsies cost about $3,500 each.

There were concerns about who the county could get if Smith would choose not to run, who would be willing to take the needed training, be called out at all hours of the day and night, in all kinds of weather, for the meager pay involved.

Behnke said pathologists also traditionally are not paid very well, which probably why there is a shortage in that field.

Sauve said Brown County is building a new facility, so he is sure the surrounding counties could all get services from Green Bay. LeFebvre said even Brown County contracts with Dane County for pathologist services.

Sauve also said the coroner works with all the local funeral directors. There is a lot of paperwork that the coroner does and the funeral directors who work with Smith have been well served by him.

Behnke, with a second from Gustafson, attempted a motion to send the issue to County Board with no recommendation. That was voted down, with Keller, George Kloppenberg and Wruk opposed. The agreement then was to take no action, which means the full County Board will have the discussion, and the committee then can consider the proposal at its next meeting.

Meanwhile, LeFebvre is to get additional information on costs and how the various coroner/medical examiner models work. One question was whether the deputy coroners are currently paid out of the regular coroners budget or if they are a separate line item. Keller said even if County Board takes no action prior to the fall elections, there are provisions for changing the office mid-term if necessary, although it is more complicated.


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